Scotland’s on the cusp of something very special (Part 3: implementing the Bill)

As outlined so far in our blog series, the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill will bring many changes to the way children and young people experience care and justice systems and address long running inconsistencies in the system. In Part 3, Debbie and Allan investigate some of the thorny issues facing the actual implementation of the Bill. 

We believe Scotland has again passed another groundbreaking piece of legislation – but know only too well the perils of the implementation gap.  

The Bill, once commenced, will impact on a range of organisations, many of whom we know are already busy preparing for its implementation. It is important to recognise from the offset that many of the children the Bill will affect will already be known to services, albeit this might not be a straightforward “displacement” of children from one part of the system to another. A dedicated focus on preparing for implementation, joint working and political will be crucial if we are to achieve the full potential of the Bill. 

Uncertain times 

The future of the Bill can’t be seen in isolation from the recent political change in Scotland. The news that the shared work programme between the Scottish Government and the Scottish Greens, known as the Bute House Agreement, was imploding on the day of the final vote certainly sent some jitters around the CYCJ office. In the end the Bill passed comfortably by 70 votes to 49 but future political hurdles lie in store. 

It’s worth remembering that all five parties supported the principles of the Bill at Stage 1 and strong amendments from opposition MSPs were voted into the legislation, including on greater support and information for victims and embedding trauma-informed practices within the Children’s Hearings System.

But a key concern for many on the opposition benches was the conditions for implementation – finances, staff, training, sequencing with other policy and practice development – and the capacity within the system to deliver the changes.  The new minority Government will need to work with other parties to make sure the right resources are in place 

At Stage 3, the Minister for Children, Young People and the Promise, Natalie Don, was clear that the systems and services would need to be ready first before delivery starts and there will now be annual reviews on the operation of the Act to check whether sufficient resources are in place. It is vital that our systems deliver on the promises made to our children and young people, but this brings uncertainty over when the changes will come into force. 

In this light, the landmark commitment to remove all children from Young Offender Institutions by the end of 2024 will be a key indicator of early progress. Thus far the indicative timeline for remaining provisions being commenced is 2025/2026 – adhering as far possible to this will be important to ensure this generation of children can benefit from the safeguards, protections and supports the Bill brings. Continued leadership from Government is needed and given her clear personal commitment to the measures contained within the Bill, this week’s news that Natalie Don will stay in her post is welcome.  

Challenges facing our care and justice systems 

We also know that the Bill was passed in one of the most challenging times facing care and justice services. This includes increased demand, rising complexity of needs, budgetary pressures, workforce shortages, a complex and evolving legislative and policy context, pandemic effects, and the cost of living crisis. 

Within the Bill itself, there are potential risks of unintended consequences from some of the provisions. There could be an increase in inappropriate referrals to the Children’s Hearings System in cases where, for example, voluntary intervention or early and effective intervention could have more appropriately met the child’s needs. Also, given the changes to the criteria for movement restriction conditions there could be an increased use of such restrictive measures where other measures would likely be more effective.  There were also some areas of missed opportunity like the removal of sections 12 and 13 which would have enhanced the legislative framework surrounding reporting restrictions.  

There is significant work to be done to ensure these changes are communicated and understood, not just by professionals working within ‘the system’, but also by children, young people and their families; people who have been harmed; and the public. This is important in developing understanding for the rationale of these changes and building public and professional confidence, but also a key part of delivering on the UNCRC is to ensure children and young people can understand and engage meaningfully with decisions impacting on their lives.  

Working together is key 

Delivering the Bill will be no mean feat, and its passage through Parliament might come to be seen as the ‘easy part’. However, through the work of the Bill’s Implementation Group which has been meeting since Summer 2023, and other work completed by CYCJ and partners, we have been developing an understanding of the implementation needs associated with the Bill. This will help us to tailor the support CYCJ can provide.  

CYCJ will have a leading role in supporting agencies in preparing for the commencement and implementation of the Bill across 2024, 2025 and 2026.  A more detailed information sheet on the detail of the Act will follow when Royal Assent is received and we are considering how things like organisational readiness, awareness raising, training, monitoring and evaluation can be supported. If you have views on this or would like to discuss your organisation’s needs, please do get in touch: 

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Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice
University of Strathclyde
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